The Acanthus Frieze and Candelabra Motifs in Antiquity
175-200 AD acanthus frieze

ARCHITECTURAL PANEL WITH A GRIFFIN - Roman, Imperial Period, about A.D. 175-200
DIMENSIONS - Height x length: 104 x 139.2 cm (40 15/16 x 54 13/16 in.)
MEDIUM OR TECHNIQUE - Marble, probably from the from the island of Proconnesus in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul

This magnificent panel can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, they have two matching half's of one large panel:
"This relief together with 03.747 presented griffins confronting one another on either side of a central element. The composition would have had sacred and protective connotations and may have formed part of the decoration of a temple. It is also possible that the reliefs embellished a large funerary structure or a secular public building, such as a basilica or market hall. An eagle-griffin stands with one paw raised and the central element was probably a candelabrum. The griffin's tail turns into a rich acanthus vine, which sends out a lateral shoot and terminates in a cluster of leaves. The frame consists (from inside out) of an astragal, a row of acanthus leaves with intervening leaf tongues, a Lesbian cymation, and an astragal. The panel is incomplete at the right end, where it has been cut off vertically. The outer, rectangular frame is somewhat damaged. It originally would have been paired with 03.747.

Fortunately I have discovered another similar panel from the same period which confirms that there possibly would have been a candelabra between the griffins, In the comparative diagram below I have taken the liberty of reconstructing the panel with an approximate candelarbra motif.

Comparative Diagram 1 - A frieze from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina 141 C.E. Rome, Roman Forum.
vs a reconstruction of panel sections in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

candelabra detail

I show in the picture above an enlargement of part of the candelabra from the frieze found at the Temple of Antonius and Faustina. This is a very familiar arrangement of acanthus leaves, it occurs often at the base of candelabras but also serves as a base or skirt for many half human figures in the wall paintings of first century Rome, particularly those of Domus Aurea.
It was a strange coincidence that I found the missing candelabra to be able to make this reconstruction, but even stranger was finding immediately afterwards a very similar candelabra in Carlo Antonini's 1740 Manuale di varj ornamenti tratti dalle fabbriche, e frammenti antichi : per uso, e commodo de' pittori, scultori, architetti, scarpellini, stuccatori, intagliatori di pietre, e legni, argentieri, giojellieri, ricamatori, ebanisti & c. (Volume 3).

Plate 46

Plate 46 - Candelabro antico preso dal fregio del tempio di antonino e faustia.
(Antique candelabra from the frieze of the Temple of Antonino and Faustia)

I knew I had seen many with similarly placed acanthus leaves while skimming through the engravings yesterday, but finding this one today only took a few seconds, I came right to it, and when I translated the engraved text with Bling Translator cold chills ran through me. This engraving was directly linked to the candelabra found in the frieze at the Temple of Antonius and Faustina. Not only that but also linked to Lippi's digram that we looked at on the previous page. All this brings me to the Wall paintings of Domus Aurea and the effect that their discovery had on the art and artists of the Renaissance.

Comparative Diagram

Comparative Diagram 1 - Fresco of the early 4th style from Pompeii (House of the Gold Bracelet, VI 17, 42)
vs a colored engraving of frescoes from Domus Aurae by Vincenzo Brenna, Franciszek Smuglewicz, Marco Gregorio Carloni,
published in 1776 Vestigia delle Terme di Tito e loro interne pitture, Rome.

In the diagram above, I compare a frieze detail from a fresco in Pompeii,* this is from a fresco that is deemed to be of an "early fourth style" and thus very comparable with the frescoes found at Domus Aurea. I want to point out a number of things with this diagram, I discovered, after looking through the extensive illustrations of Brenna et al that these motifs of paired Griffins in a decorative frieze are very common in this period and that the griffins are not always separated by a candelabra. Further to this I wanted to show that the engravings appear to be fairly accurate. If we want to know exactly how accurate these engraved copies are, we need to find a photograph the same frescoes that this team selected for their illustrations and that may never happen, as those paintings may have already perished. However I now think we are safe in saying that the many griffins found in their engravings indicate that these motifs along with candelabra and acanthus were strong components of decoration in this period. I cannot resist delving further into the art and decoration of Domus Aurea, on the next page I will present more examples from these engravings comparing them with actual photographs of Roman frescoes from this period.

*Image from The Naples National Archaeological Museum

acanthus frieze 1s century A.D. Rome

Acanthus frieze 1st century A.D. Domus Aurae, Rome.
(From Plate 24 of the Domus Aurea engravings by Vincenzo Brenna, Franciszek Smuglewicz, Marco Gregorio Carloni,
published in 1776 Vestigia delle Terme di Tito e loro interne pitture. Rome.)

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